Efforts to assess the importance and impact of media in the Middle East in the years since the 2010-11 Arab uprisings have largely focused on the news media and their capacity to disseminate information and opinion. Whether the resulting influence on national identity and people’s attitudes and behavior is perfunctory or profound depends on the commentator or scholar and the evidence they marshal. The same is true of examinations of the role and function of entertainment media in the Middle East, based on methods ranging from casual observation to systematic cultural analysis. But rigorous empirical studies drawing on personal interviews with actual people are sparse, with most coming from commercial sources rather than disciplined scholarship.

Entertainment Media Use in the Middle East is the result of survey research in six Arab nations involving more than 6,000 face-to-face interviews in nationally representative samples—citizens and expatriates alike—and conducted Arabic, English and French. The result is a portrait of how people in the six countries, selected to represent the larger Arab world, make use of entertainment media in their daily lives and what they think about it. Unlike some studies of entertainment fare in the region, which focus on a fragmented aspect of the whole cultural landscape, this one is linked directly to the larger context of all media. Many excellent existing studies of Arab culture give short shrift to certain media and especially entertainment media as they delve into family relationships, religion and other aspects of the broader culture. This study, conducted by Northwestern University in Qatar (NU-Q) in collaboration with Doha Film Institute, complements a 2013 study by NU-Q of Media Use in the Middle East which was concerned mostly with the news media and internet. It was in a reflection on that study, widely covered around the globe, that the need for greater intelligence about cultural and entertainment media was felt. 

There is no dearth of speculation and opinion about the influence of all forms of entertainment on the attitudes and world view of individuals, communities and Arab society itself. Recognizing that entertainment media content blends original programming from the Arab world with global offerings from Hollywood, Bollywood and other sources, there is much debate about how exposure to movies, television, online videos, music, sport, electronic games and other media benefit or harm the local culture. But as Arab media scholar Naomi Sakr has warned, the lack of actual audience evidence can lead to misconceptions about the influence of mass media. Outside of the news media little is known about people’s entertainment media choices in the Arab world and for that reason this study was launched. The purpose of Entertainment Media Use in the Middle East is to understand what media forms, genres and outlets people actually use, including the choices they make and their opinions about their own viewing and that of others. All entertainment platforms (cinema, TV, online movies, music, video games, sports, even shopping) are considered. Since media live within the borders of specific countries—though their output may travel far—it is essential to understand what role governments, social and religious influences play, and what entertainment media users think about that. It is, after all, the media policies and regulation of governments, telecommunication authorities, film censors and others that guide or even control media use. Entertainment navigates and is defined by regimes of freedom of expression globally and in the several countries in the study. While there is no absolute freedom of expression anywhere, there is a continuum between control on the one hand and freedom and liberty on the other. The availability of entertainment content and programming is influenced by enabling legislation in some societies to censor and in others to self-censor. Thus the need to discern public attitudes toward government oversight and perceptions about the role of media in contributing to the larger culture are critical elements in any understanding of entertainment media use.

Building on NU-Q’s 2013 study, it was determined to select six countries that best represent cultural and regional similarities and differences within the Arab world from the Maghreb and Levant to the Gulf States. Calibrated to reflect representative countries, and cognizant of financial resources, those selected were Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Qatar, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates. The study includes individual country data against the backdrop of a regional average, thus showing the range of use patterns and attitudes, useful in understanding the entertainment media use of the region. The pre-study phase of this project included consensus conversations with faculty, staff, students and outside consultants at NU-Q, a substantial literature review included here, and interviews with experts on Arab film and entertainment from the academy and industry. All helped in questionnaire development and refinement. Early on the leadership of Qatar’s Doha Film Institute was consulted and they expressed interest in being a partner in the project, thus providing a first-hand industry perspective as we developed the questionnaire, and contributing to the funding of the effort as well. The project is a genuine collaboration. Harris Interactive, now part of The Nielsen Company, and the Social and Economic Research Institute (SESRI) at Qatar University were contracted to do the field survey work in the six countries. A statement about the survey procedure can be found by clicking on the Methodology link on the left-hand menu.

Taking on a topic as broad, complicated and inclusive as entertainment media use in the Middle East naturally involves a strategy for organizing the study and retrieving its findings in a useful, coherent manner. Thus, questions across the countries examined the role of both media use and leisure time. Questions were posed to ferret out information on the various platforms, media forms and genres including film, television, video games, music, as well as internet and social media. The study also asked respondents whether they consume news as entertainment (via TV, online, and numerous print formats). Considerable attention was given to regulation and censorship of entertainment media, content choices and children’s entertainment media. While each chapter includes data from all six countries, a separate chapter reprises and codifies the findings from the State of Qatar, the seat of our university and the media scene most immediately relevant to NU-Q, its administration, faculty and students. As always, the meaning of the findings are relevant in each of the six countries, but also well beyond since some of the countries play a significant role in the production of entertainment fare.

Of special interest in the Islamic and Arab world are what have been termed “Ramadan media,” or the special television programs, films and other content produced especially for the Holy Month of Ramadan. These include historical epic TV dramas called mosalsalat and produced especially for the revered month. As our literature review states, “Ramadan is a time of devotion and abstinence…associated with conspicuous consumption both in feasting and in viewing TV specially calibrated to sweep ratings and advertising revenues.” Thus the survey includes questions that document Ramadan media habits contrasted with those through the rest of the year. There is precious little research on this important aspect of Arab media use, mostly relevant to entertainment, so these findings are especially noteworthy.

Findings from the study demonstrate an interplay between original entertainment content produced in the MENA region and that imported from outside. While enjoying entertainment fare from many parts of the world, East and West, there is a desire for more entertainment content from the region. This is closely tied to a belief that locally produced content contributes to the culture of the region in a way that content from elsewhere does not. Two-thirds (66 percent) of adults surveyed agreed that people benefit from watching content from different parts of the world, yet a nearly equal two-thirds (65 percent) prefer films that portray their own culture. Weighing in on Hollywood films, 43 percent of respondents find them enjoyable while 34 percent think them morally harmful; 15 percent said they are morally beneficial.

In the cultural realm, there was what at first glance might seem a contradiction. Some 79 percent want entertainment to do more to preserve cultural traditions—and at the same time 70 percent want more cultural integration with modern society. This may reflect what has been called the re-traditionalization of the region, where strong support for cultural traditions reflected in national dress and religious conservatism, can live comfortably alongside modernization and an increasingly global society. Yet a vast majority believe entertainment content should be regulated for romantic content (69 percent) that presumably offends Islamic cultural traditions while 74 percent want more regulation of violent content. Some 68 percent opine that offensive films and other entertainment should be banned altogether. These average findings for violent content regulation were quite stable across the region with a high of 82 percent and 80 percent in KSA and Qatar, to a low of 64 percent in Tunisia. Reaction to regulation for romantic content reached a high of 82 percent in Saudi Arabia and lows of 64-69 percent in UAE and Lebanon and 56 percent in Tunisia. While the numbers may differ on opposition to violent content across the region, especially involving children, this view is also quite prevalent in nations far from the Middle East, where TV and movie violence has been debated and regulated for decades. In this study, when asked whether exposure to entertainment desensitizes children to violence, responses were notably tepid, with an average of 41 percent expressing concern and ranges from highs of 56 percent and 52 percent in KSA and Qatar to lows of 31 percent and 30 percent in UAE and Tunisia—and only 24 percent in Egypt. There is also some fear that exposure to entertainment causes acceptance of negative stereotypes portrayed in films and TV with 44 percent agreeing on average; agreement reached highs of 57 percent and 53 percent in KSA and Qatar and a low of 28 percent in Egypt.

The findings show the people of the MENA region to be appreciative and voracious consumers of entertainment, just as our previous study found them to be attentive to news and information media. When it came to the most important sources of entertainment, respondents were asked to rate different forms on a scale from not very important to very important. Results had watching television programs (76 percent) slightly ahead of passing time online (72 percent of internet users), with other choices being watching films on TV (66 percent), watching online videos (58 percent of internet users), listening to music (56 percent) and shopping or fun/leisure (50 percent). Cinema attendance was at 45 percent in the region, with a high of 82 percent in UAE and a low of 15 percent in Tunisia, no doubt due to the numbers of movie screens.

The reported global trend of “binge-watching” of TV and online entertainment series is also alive in the Middle East. Nearly half of women (49 percent) in the study reported “binge watching” of two or more episodes of a series in the same sitting vs. 31 percent for men.

Sports was consistently cited as one of the top online content choices. The likelihood for internet users to be willing to pay to watch sports online was 31 percent—slightly lower than for films or video games, but higher than music or television series—with a high of 64 percent in UAE and a low of 13 percent in Lebanon.

The pages that follow offer detailed data and analysis of media use, preference and attitudes as well as a sense of how much tolerance or opposition there is to government regulation.

What the data seem to show is a region awash in entertainment fare and growing demand for more. There is openness to imports from abroad while at the same time a strong preference for local content. There is a self-consciousness about culture and identity with an expectation that films and other entertainment should take this seriously. There is also enthusiasm for religious programming marked by heavy demand for programming during Ramadan.

What the data seem to show is a climate of receptivity for the growth of indigenous entertainment media in the region. This bodes well for an expansion of the media market—and the greater development of media and entertainment industries.  There is an appetite for more and diverse content. Certainly, this adds weight to the need for more film and television production in the region with output that can have appeal across several countries. Online viewing of entertainment is strong in a region where high-speed internet connectivity is moderate to high and where prevalence of mobile devices and smart phones is also high. If anyone doubted the robust nature of entertainment media use in the Middle East, where images of violence and civil unrest often dominate the news, there is good news in these data for consumers and content producers alike.